“Poets are for each other.”
Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne, between The Keep and Miller’s Crossing) has four friends over to his mansion. They stay up late drinking just tons of laudanum, having sex and challenging each other to write scary stories.
Supposedly this one night spawned Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as the first vampire story published in English, so dramatists and horror historians love to revisit it. I haven’t seen the others, but for sheer imagery and inventiveness, it’s hard to imagine anyone topping Russell and this great movie. The actors are into it, throwing themselves histrionically into the fantasy. Fun music, even cartoonish at times, by Thomas Dolby. Things get increasingly traumatic and dreamlike as the night wears on, with apparent murders and accidents and Mary Godwin’s (she hadn’t yet married Shelley) visions of her dead child. Strange ending, as they’re all perfectly fine in the morning, then a present-day tour boat gives a rushed narrative postscript.
Timothy Spall (in his second Frankstein-related film in a row, after appearing in The Bride with Sting and Jennifer Beals) is Dr. Polidori, commissioned to write a biography of Byron. I never quite figured his character out (though I love watching Timothy Spall, so it’s not important), but reading later that he became famous for his vampire story gave new meaning to this scene where he’s harmed from touching the cross on his wall.
Miriam Cyr (only in a few movies, but three are Frankenstein-related) is Claire Clairmont, stepsister of Mary Godwin/Shelley, who had a child with Byron the following year. Miriam may have been cast for her ability to open her eyes unusually wide.
Boyishly energetic Julian Sands (year after A Room With a View) plays Shelley, and Natasha Richardson (Asylum, The Handmaid’s Tale) is Mary. Sands kicks things into high gear early in the night, running naked onto the rooftops trying to catch lightning (definite Frankenstein reference).
Shelley, Mary, Polidori:
They summon a creature during a seance, Sands goes out to the shed and gets spooked, Polidori goes to bed early then appears as a dismembered head on the floor. Goblins, giant snakes and living suits of armor roam the house. There are swords, guns, torches and hangings, and somehow they all end up in the basement covered in filth.
“We’re dead. It’s shown me the torture it has in store for us. Our creature – it will be there waiting in the shadows, in the shape of our fears, until it has seen us to our deaths.”
Ivan Passer filmed a version of this story two years later, with Eric Stoltz in the Sands role, Alex Winter in the Spall role, and Laura Dern as Claire. Also in ’88, the same year he was in Ken Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, Hugh Grant played Byron in yet another version, with Elizabeth Hurley as Claire.